“The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” So wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia, the landmark case declaring unconstitutional the anti-miscegenation laws on the books in 16 states. Among those whose parents’ interracial marriage would have been illegal in Virginia at the time he was born is President Obama. On Wednesday, Mr. Obama for the first time declared his view that gay and lesbian Americans should be able to marry as well.

Some might quibble that Mr. Obama’s comments came only after months of self-described evolving and no-commenting, and on the heels of remarks by Vice President Joe Biden that were deeply, if not explicitly, supportive of marriage equality. What we think matters is the president’s bottom line — that “for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

In an interview with ABC News’s Robin Roberts, Mr. Obama said he had “always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated equally.” But, he said, he “hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient, that that was something that would give people hospital visitation rights, other elements that we take for granted, and I was sensitive to the fact that, for a lot of people, the word marriage was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs, and so forth.”

It was not entirely clear how far Mr. Obama’s support extends. According to an ABC report, the president “stressed that this is a personal position, and that he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own.” This suggests that Mr. Obama may not be prepared to go so far as to support the view that the right of gay men and lesbians to marry, like that of interracial couples, is entitled to constitutional protection. He was not asked directly about his views on the constitutional status of same-sex marriage.

Nonetheless, this development is symbolically important and enormously cheering. The nation has moved swiftly, in historical terms, from cruel and almost unthinking bigotry against gay men and lesbians to recognition that such prejudice is unacceptable. On marriage, many Americans have followed a journey much like Mr. Obama’s: gradual, influenced by friends and relatives, determined ultimately by respect and, as the president said, the Golden Rule. It’s worth noting that Mr. Obama wasn’t a bigot before, when he still opposed gay marriage, and not everyone who opposes gay marriage is a bigot today. But the country is moving.

That might not seem obvious the day after North Carolina became the 30th state to adopt a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage — indeed, in the ill-advised language of the North Carolina provision, to bar recognition of same-sex civil unions as well. In total, 38 states prohibit same-sex marriage either by constitutional amendment, statute or both; it is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia.

But polls show a population evenly divided and steadily trending toward support for civil rights for gays, with younger people least conflicted of all. As more Americans evolve as Mr. Obama did, more states will give gay and lesbian citizens the equal treatment and equal recognition they deserve. Presidential leadership can only help.

The Washington Post (May 10)